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Street Life: Graz (Austria)
Space For People project
Prof. Max Mayr, Dipl.-Ing. Heinz Rosmann (director) and Dipl.- Ing. Klemens Klinar
Graz, the Styrian provincial capital of about 243,000 inhabitants, was first mentioned in the history books in 1128. Its narrow alleyways and small squares developed along both banks of the river Mur. Graz twice served as an imperial city and later as a grand residence. Three universities shaped Graz's transformation from monarchy 'Pensionopolis' to a city of over 45,000 students.
Around 1960, when the automobile society had really arrived, cars and trucks conquered large areas of Graz. The official goal in the context of private transport was the 'car-friendly' city. Example: the elegant main bridge was replaced by a wider, dull concrete construction.
At the beginning of the 1970's intolerable traffic levels, especially in the centre, triggered a movement towards a 'people-friendly' city. With its push for underground car parks around the edge of town and the creation of a first pedestrian zone on Herrengasse - Eisernes Tor (both autumn 1972), the Habitat Old Town international conference heralded a gradual change of approach.
In 1974 the provincial parliament passed the Graz Old Town Law to protect the valuable variety of building styles Graz had inherited against demolition. In 1975, the Ministry of Science in Vienna commissioned the 'Living in the Old Town' research project. Graz consequently became a bicycle town; cyclists were even allowed the wrong way down one-way streets.
With the slogan 'Eco-friendly mobility begins in the mind' the late deputy mayor Erich Edegger launched a new direction in municipal politics. In early June 1990, the 'Are your cities suffocating in the traffic?' conference organised by the international City Forum and Graz urban development, chaired by senate councillor DI Heinz Rosmann, met with a very positive response. The Graz Memorandum was translated into five languages.
Space for People
In August 1990 Edegger presented the Space for People concept, to run through to 1998. Some excerpts: Graz's old town is a cultural core, a centre for business and administration and a place for living and meeting. Its structure and history make it a pedestrian area, hence a space for people. The wide-ranging functions that have developed organically within this small space are disturbed considerably by motorised traffic. The establishment of a pedestrian zone in 1972 and its extension in 1976 were the first steps towards relieving the strain on the centre.
Understanding that public space cannot be expanded in the densely developed city centre, and that more space for cars means less space for people, led to this concept. 'Space for People' is therefore a comprehensive local policy programme with wider perspectives, including commuter park & ride, parking space management, completing the ring of underground car parks and encouraging the use of public transport.
There were three main focuses:
• Healthier living conditions for inhabitants and people working in the city through a reduction of motorised traffic and hence noise and pollution.
• More safety for all traffic modes by means of lower speed limits and clear traffic regulation.
• Growth in appeal of the city as a centre of culture, education and business through well-designed public spaces for meeting up with people, shopping or just strolling.
New designs for public spaces
At the same time the design concept was agreed. It was based on the fact that the structure of squares, streets and alleyways in the Graz old town had survived in all its diversity. Historic buildings, monuments (examples of bourgeois and religious buildings) give these spaces their unique character. The quality of the city's image stems from its clearly legible history, the structure of its squares and the dynamic of its economic development.
As early as the mid-1970's , with the help of well thought-out concepts and commitment from sensitive citizens, many squares, alleyways and some streets were freed from the overwhelming flood of cars. Around this time, shopowners worried about losing clients due to pedestrianisation stopped protesting. The effect had been the reverse: inhabitants and visitors enjoy the quiet squares, which offer a sense of beauty and safety, encouraging communication and making encounters a pleasant experience.
The Space for People concept could, however, not stop negative international trends such as shrinking numbers of residents in the old town, retail business changes and various functions shifting away from the city centre. Nonetheless, the conditions were created for the inner city to preserve its vitality and spiritual importance for Styria and beyond.
In order to counter gridlock one needs first-class, financially viable programmes supported by politicians, planners and inhabitants. Numerous urban design competitions have been tendered in Graz, a method that has proved successful.
After more than ten years of the Space for People programme, now seems a good time to take stock. It looks positive; we have managed to secure the future of these urban areas. The city council provided the necessary funding; most of the planners for the Graz squares and open spaces belong to the 'Graz School of Architecture'; citizens' opinions counted for a great deal.
Major importance had always been assigned to networking individual locations, also across the river. In Graz, 'City of short distances' is not just a slogan, but reality. If you park and walk, you are guaranteed to get there quickly, often quicker than by car.
An overview of the completed or almost completed locations demonstrates their variety. A special feature in Graz is the neighbourhood of five small squares, strung together like pearls.
• Färberplatz arose from the demolition of the Färber barracks. For a long time its fate was undecided. Today, large slabs and small cobbles are combined to charming effect, old and young chestnut trees give shade and the new to-scale Café M building provides a breathtaking roofscape view.
• From spring to late autumn, beer gardens and a Mediterranean atmosphere fill Mehlplatz.
• The Glockenspielplatz becomes a magnet three times a day for tourists enjoying the Styrian carillon.
• Walking on to Bishofsplatz, Stempfergasse alley leads off to the right, one of the once narrow connections in the old town of Graz where the level of cobblestones has been lifted and the pavements removed to make them accessible to people with disabilities. They are now like small squares themselves.
• Since Tummelplatz was re-designed, event and exhibition organisers have clamoured for the space between Akademisches Gymnasium and Hans-Sachs-Gasse. Crafts stalls have a market place here too.
• Many battles were fought over the new Jakominiplatz design. All the tramlines and various bus lines intersect here, at the intersection of Graz's public transport. Priorities included finding a safe control system, good street lighting and an attractive centre. The many street lanterns in yellow were criticised; their advocates claim the Graz 'Piccadilly Circus' easily carries it off.
• Planners found that public transport shapes Südtirolerplatz to the same extent. Immediately at the beginning of the right side of the river, we find two major tram stops. This is an enormous advantage for the Kunsthaus (House of Art), which is to be built in this area as planned by British architects Peter Cook and Colin Fournier.
• The spacious Mariahilferplatz is not only a popular jazz meeting-point in the jazz capital of Austria; a revitalised and extended building here will have new functions: Graz House of Europe and Centre for 2003.
• The 'Edeggersteg' footbridge leads to the Schlossbergplatz, where the path up the Schlossberg begins and the entry to the mines, lift and 'Dom im Berg' (cathedral in the mountain) are to be found. Thanks to its clear structure, this is an impressive new design.
• Lendplatz on the right side of the Mur is a spacious area with some problematic zones. Business has declined since the times of the raftsmen, but now an upswing is expected. A multifunctional building including a hotel is to be built here shortly. Numerous trees were planted to counterbalance heavy traffic.
• In recent times a lively scene has developed on Franziskanerplatz, in front of the restored monastery and its great church. Small shops and restaurants with beer gardens invite passers-by to take a break.
• Most demanding of all is the recently begun re-design of the main square, to which the Councillor for Urban Development in Graz, DI Franz Josel, has committed himself entirely. Tram rails must be shifted, market booths re-arranged, and the space between town hall and the monument is to become a square for festive events. Noble buildings require noble cobblestones and appropriate lighting.
On balance: the Space for People project has upgraded the Styrian capital enormously. The fact that Graz old town was awarded the UNESCO 'World Cultural Heritage' title in 1999, and that it will be acting as cultural capital in 2003, is certainly linked to its culture of squares and open spaces.
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The Journal of Urbanism